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5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them

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Long before our modern industries developed the cleaning products, industrial solvents, and drugs that can kill when misused, people used simple plants to murder each other. Some plants were especially effective.

1. Nightshade

Atropa Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade. The flowering plant is native to Europe and can grow up to ten feet tall if left to grow for years. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, the shiny black berries are most poisonous. The words bella donna mean pretty woman in English. This name may have come from the use of belladonna to dilate the eyes in order to make a woman more attractive to men. Image by Flickr user peganum.

180MacBethThe alkaloid Atropine is one of the the active ingredient in nightshade. Atropine is used during surgery to regulate the heartbeat, decrease salivation, and paralyze muscles. In eye surgery, it relaxes the muscles and dilates the eye. Another drug found in nightshade is scopolamine, which has some of the same properties as atropine, and (in very dilute quantities) is also used for motion sickness and to combat drug addiction. Famous users of nightshade are not confirmed, but legend has it that when Agrippina the Younger hired the serial killer Locusta to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, she used nightshade. Before he became king in 1040, Macbeth supposedly used nightshade to poison an army of Danes who invaded Scotland.

2. Hemlock


Poison hemlock (conium maculatum) is a flowering plant with fleshy, carrotlike roots that can grow up to ten feet tall. This hemlock is no relation to the coniferous eastern hemlock tree in North America. All parts of the poison hemlock plant contain poison alkaloids. If ingested, conium will cause paralysis of various body systems. Paralysis of the respiratory system is the usual cause of death. Meanwhile, a victim can't move but is aware of what is happening as the mind is unaffected until death is imminent.

The most famous case of hemlock poisoning was that of Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. The 70-year-old was found guilty of heresy in a trial in Athens. His sentence was death by hemlock, and he had to drink the poison by his own hand. Socrates drank up, then walked around until he noticed his legs were heavy. As shown in this 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates was surrounded by students and adherents as he died.

3. Strychnine


Strychnine is made from seeds of the plant Strychnos nux vomica, found in Asia and Australia. The poison was first isolated from the plant in 1818 by two French chemists. Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, who also isolated quinine (used to treat malaria) from its source. Strychnine has been used as a homeopathic remedy (in very diluted form), a performance-enhacing drug for athletes, a slight hallucinogenic used to cut street drugs, and most commonly as rat poison.

150creamStrychnine is an alkaloid (like hemlock or atropine) that paralyzes the victim and causes death by respiratory failure. There is no antidote for strychnine. Dr. Thomas Neil Cream killed at least seven women and one man, possibly many more, between 1878 and 1892 by giving them strychnine as medicine, both in the US and England. After serving ten years of a life sentence in America, he returned to London to continue poisoning his patients. Cream was convicted of murder in England and executed in 1892. Some have speculated that Cream might even be Jack the Ripper, but records indicate that Cream was in prison in the US when the Whitechapel murders occurred.

4. Curare


Curare is a mixture of various South American natural resources used for poison arrows and blowgun darts. One of the main ingredients is an extract of the plant Chondrodendron tomentosum.  Curare is used for medicinal purposes in a highly diluted form. The main poison is an alkaloid, which causes paralysis and death much in the same way as strychnine and hemlock. However, after the respiratory system becomes paralyzed, the heart may continue beating for quite some time.

180blowgunDeath by curare is relatively slow and horrific, as the victim is awake and aware but cannot move or even speak. However, if artificial respiration is performed until the poison subsides, the victim will survive. Indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin used curare-laden arrows to hunt game for food. Curare does not affect those who eat the animals who were killed by it. A slightly different recipe for curare is used when the intended target is human, such as that used during tribal war. Curare has also been adapted for use as a muscle relaxant during surgery.

5. Arsenic


Arsenic is a metalloid element, atomic weight 33. It occurs in small amounts in air, water, and soil, and in greater amounts in volcanic ash and in copper and gold mines. Because it kills insects, a compound called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA was used from the 1950s to 2003 to preserve pressure-treated wood. Arsenic has been used in medicines (it was once the indicated treatment for syphilis), chemical warfare, and as a pesticide. Various arsenic compounds are used to color paint and fireworks and as a semiconductor in integrated circuits. It is also used to harden metal for ammunition and the process of bronzing. Image by Flickr user James Laing.

159borgiaArsenic kills by inhibiting the production of necessary enzymes. Small amounts of arsenic ingested over time (possibly through drinking water) can raise the probability of cancer. Acute poisoning causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, vomiting, and death. Murder by arsenic was popular in the Middle Ages as the substance was easy to procure and the symptoms of poisoning resembled those of cholera. Now, evidence of arsenic poisoning is easier to find. Chronic arsenic ingestion can be found months, even years later in the victim's hair and fingernails. The most famous arsenic poisoners were the Borgia family in the Middle Ages. It was said that a little arsenic improved the taste of wine, and the gracious Borgias made sure their guests had the best-tasting wine possible.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]